Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

Almost a year ago now, I was in New York, and complaining about my kitchen right here. Remember? I couldn't even get my trusted pumpkin chocolate-chip muffins right.

I'm back in France now, and I'll let you imagine the big sigh of relief when I chomped away on a warm muffin coming right out of the oven a week ago. Good thing they were a success, because I had 30 of them waiting patiently for my guests coming over to celebrate my birthday with a Sunday brunch. I don't think it would be pushing it to say brunch is one of my favorite meals--I'm always intrigued to see who is more of a sweet brunch or salty brunch person. I used to be 100% sweet until I realized I always had a craving for something salty (pretty rare in my case) a few hours later. Now I'll just have both: you can't actually say no to breakfast food when it could potentially be in front of you in a few minutes.

In any case, I had planned a sweet and salty (I banned savory from my personal vocabulary) brunch for my birthday last weekend: pumpkin chocolate-chip muffins, mini pastries, yogurt with homemade jam, and potato-pancetta frittata with truffle butter and truffle salt. Add to that a simple salad with sesame tahini dressing and everything was set to go.

As the afternoon went on and the pumpkin muffins dwindled down, I couldn't help but look at the frittata and wish it were almond french toast or warm pancakes with maple syrup.

Once a sweet girl, always a sweet girl, I guess.

Pumpkin Chocolate-Chip Muffins
makes approx. 30

3 c. all-purpose flour
2 TS baking soda
2 TS baking powder
2 TS pumpkin pie spice
1 TS cinnamon
1/2 TS salt
4 eggs
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 can pumpkin purée
1 c. applesauce
1 1/2 c. chocolate chunks or chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°F/180°C. Line muffin tins with paper liners.

Combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, mix eggs and sugar. Add pumpkin and applesauce, and stir well to combine. Add flour mixture until moistened.
Stir in chocolate.

Spoon batter into muffin tins (about 2/3 full) and bake 20-25 minutes, until tops spring back when touched. Cool in pans for 5 minutes, remove and let cool completely before serving.

These can keep several days if stored in the refrigerator.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Easy as Pie...or Easy as Chocolate Mousse

That expression, "easy as pie", has always seemed pretty weird to me. At first, I thought it meant easy as baking a pie, in reference to the fact that pie-baking should be easy. Which, unless you buy a ready-made crust and canned filling, it's not. Making the dough, rolling it out, par-baking, you get the point. I later found out that "easy as pie", or "simple as pie", actually means as easy as sitting around to eat a slice of pie. That is, pretty much not doing anything.

Anyhow, to get back to the way people define simplicity, I find there's a real difference in France and in the U.S. In America, a simple dessert might be some kind of berry cobbler. A more upscale, fancy dessert would be chocolate mousse. France sees things in quite a different light. A cobbler would definitely be considered more elaborate than a mousse; in fact, go to my school cafeteria and you'll find chocolate mousse and crème caramel on any given day. Chocolate mousse is the kind of dessert that reminds you of your childhood and the simple things that taste good.

To tell you the truth, I hadn't had a mousse au chocolat in a really long time. Last time I could remember was making some in a huge bowl and scooping it out by the spoonful once it was set. No cute wine glasses or fancy serving bowls: chocolate mousse is best served family-style. Suddenly, about a week ago, the craving for mousse came along. The nice part of it is that this kind of craving doesn't involve any grocery list or extensive prepping. All you need are two things: chocolate and eggs.

But the best part is what makes baking and cooking a moment of pure happiness: the smile on your friend's face, proof that your dessert just hit the spot.

Chocolate Mousse
serves 2-3

2 egg yolks
3 egg whites
100g bittersweet chocolate (about 3.5 oz)

Melt chocolate over a double-boiler. Add egg yolks and a little sugar if desired, and mix.

In a different bowl, beat egg whites to stiff peaks. Take 1/4 of egg whites and incorporate to chocolate mixture.

Delicately incorporate remaining egg whites and chocolate mixture.

Refrigerate for at least 1 to 2 hours before serving, and bring to room temperature at least 20 minutes prior to serving.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


When I was younger, and still of age to have my maman pack my lunch in my pink sticker-decorated lunchbox, I was often a little frustrated. The kids at my lunch table had Lunchables, Fruit Roll-Ups and Capri Sun. Me? I had fresh veggies, Juicy Juice berry juices, and "fruit leather". You know what I'm talking about: strips made of 100% fruit, in 20 kinds of different flavors.

Who had the best lunch? Well, I guess that depends on the person you ask. Like girls who have straight hair wanting it to be curly and vice versa, I wanted what I couldn't have. This may be hard to believe, but I was longing to dig into a bag of Fritos instead of carrots and homemade yogurt dip. Sure, now that I look back, I'm pretty sure my kids will be eating the same thing for lunch--and last year in New York, fruit leather was my snack of choice. But back then, all I wanted was artifical coloring and high fructose corn syrup.

My maman didn't give in--she went the sly way. It would have been too easy to just say no, and leave me with a strange fantasy of living in a world of junk food. But she said yes. Yes, I could try Lunchables once, and even pick my "type". I could try Fruit Roll-Ups, and I could even try Capri Sun. I picked the pizza Lunchables because it looked cool--who would say no to the prospect of making their own pizza for lunch? That was without considering that it was more like making an uncooked pizza on cardboard bread. The Lunchables version of a pizza consists of "bread", tomato sauce and cheese that you just pile on top of one another and eat. Strange way to see it, to say the least. You could say that after that episode, Lunchables were no longer my ideal lunch. Fruit Roll-Ups? They stick to your teeth even more than fruit leather, and don't taste like anything. Plus, those dollar signs you're supposed to be able to cut out always tear and never look like anything cool. And don't get me started on Capri Sun. Between that and Sunny Delight, I don't really know which one makes me want to run and down 5 glasses of water to take the taste away. I tried, and I went back to my trusty good-for-you lunches.

One thing I never tried, however, was the Fluffernutter. I actually didn't know such a thing existed before reading about it a few weeks ago. Marshmallow Fluff, peanut butter and bread--it sounded strange, but I was intrigued. I had marshmallow creme (creme? cream? I've seen 'creme' in some US articles too) left over from my fudge, and had some peanut butter on hand. I had no bread, but something even better...pretzels. Needless to say, I had a junk food revelation a few days ago--fluffernutter pretzels are my new guilty snack.

Staying on my fluffernutter bender, I was planning on baking some brownies for a group work session for school, and wanted to customize them a little. My "aha!" moment came when I realized marshmallow fluff + peanut butter + brownies was a possibility, and that these brownies were a must try. I started out with a classic recipe from America's Test Kitchen, and added some peanut butter and marshmallow cream that I swirled into the batter with a knife. Unfortunately, the marshmallow that stayed on the top of the brownie decided to go campfire on me and started to burn for some reason... But I pulled them out right before they were burnt burnt, and they had that bonfire taste that was pretty enjoyable.

I won't be asking for a fluffernutter version of Lunchables anytime soon, but these brownies do the trick. Plus, they're homemade, which makes it perfect: giving the feeling of junk food in a not-so-junky snack.

Fluffernutter Brownies
Makes approx. 16 brownies

8 TB butter
3 oz (approx 90g) bittersweet chocolate
2/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 TS baking powder
1/4 TS salt
2/3 c. granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 TS vanilla extract
several spoonfulls peanut butter & marshmallow cream

Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C. Line an 8-in square baking pan with a foil sling.

Melt butter and chocolate together in a double boiler, and let cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, whisk dry ingredients together. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Add melted chocolate mixture until combined, and stir in dry ingredients until just incorporated.

Scrape batter into pan, and drop peanut butter and marshmallow fluff in small dollops. Run a butter knife through the batter to create swirls.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few crumbs attached, 27 to 30 minutes. Rotate pan halfway through baking.

Let brownies cool completely before cutting into squares.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Less Is More : Learning from an ancestor

"Less is more" is one of those quotes that everybody seems to know. It's often attributed to the architect Mies van der Rohe and associated with the Bauhaus movement. Well, guess what? He wasn't the first to popularize the saying.

In fact, it first appeared in Robert Browning's poem Andrea del Sarto in 1855--and it turns out Robert Browning (not as famous as his wife though, Elizabeth Barrett Browning) is my great-great-great-uncle, or something along those lines.

Anyway, I forgot to take a cue from my ancestor when I decided that a pumpkin pecan pie sounded good. Actually, it still sounds good if I say it again, but I should have thought about it twice. It's a common mistake--when you love two things, why not mix them up in a single dish? I guess that's how you can explain some people like to dip their fries in ice cream. From what I've heard--from those that enjoy it, obviously--it's a pretty tasty combination. In my mind, however, it just spells trouble. But pumpkin and pecans, you'll say, seem to complement each other quite logically. Plus, I love pumpkin pie, and I love pecan pie. So I should "love squared" pumpkin pecan pie.

It started out well--the recipe, again from allrecipes, had a ton of positive reviews--and all the ingredients were appetizing. I made my new favorite sweet dough and poured the pumpkin filling into my new American-sized pie dish. I then spooned the pecan filling on top, and baked everything until it was ready. My friends couldn't wait for it to cool, so my first bites were of a warm pumpkin-pecan pie, which just might explain why it seemed rather écoeurant to me.

Basically, I think I would rather have a small slice of pumpkin pie and a small slice of pecan pie than a large slice of this combination of both. (Actually, I would rather have a large slice of both.) It doesn't really add anything positive to mix them up.

Keeping it simple seems to be a pretty good idea in baking, even though when I see a recipe that piles ingredients one on top of another--like a seven-layer magic bar--the sugar-crazy child in me feels like jumping up and down. When it comes to pies, however, less really is more.

From now on, I'll stick to the pie basics. Then I can keep thinking "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways..."

Robert and Elizabeth Browning, reconciled in their great-great-great-niece's kitchen.

Pumpkin Pecan Pie
adapted from makes one 9-in. deep dish pie

Pâte Sablée

1 cup pumpkin purée
1/3 c. granulated sugar
1 egg
1 TS pumpkin pie spice
1/2 TS cinnamon

1/2 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 TB butter, melted
1/2 TS vanilla extract
1 cup pecan halves

Make pie dough and press it into pan. Freeze for at least 30 minutes before baking.

Bake dough, covered with foil and with pie weights, for 20-25 minutes at 375°F.

Mix pumpkin, sugar, egg, pumpkin pie spice and cinnamon in a medium bowl and stir well. Spread on bottom of pie shell.

Combine maple syrup, eggs, sugar, butter, pecans and vanilla extract in a medium bowl. Spoon over the top of the pumpkin filling.

Bake at 350°F / 180°C for 50 minutes - 1 hour until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely (at least one hour) before serving.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pumpkin Cookies

The name is pretty simple: pumpkin cookies. I could turn that into moist pumpkin spice cookies, or iced autumn pumpkin cookies, or even iced moist autumn pumpkin spice cake-cookies, if I really wanted to. I'd rather not: the pumpkin cookies I made for last Sunday dinner will remain as simple as can be.

Honestly, there's not much of a crazy story to go along with these. Nothing about intense nostalgia or throwbacks to when I was young enough to look at toy catalogs with awe--on second thought, I still do that. Did you know they now make about twenty different kinds of "play kitchens"? With stovetops that make actual sizzling sounds when you place a "pan" on them? I'm not sure they would have gotten first place in front of all my Barbies and My Little Poneys, but still, I was impressed.

Anyway, when I found the recipe for Pumpkin Cookies on Allrecipes, the 1,200-odd reviews were all pretty laudatory. I was looking for something simple, somewhat light, that packed all the flavor fall has to offer--and according to the reviewers, this was it.

Pumpkin cookies are, in a few words, exactly what they promise to be. The simplicity of their name echoes the simplicity of the cookie itself: it takes no more than 20 minutes to make, it has a simple cake-like texture, and the flavor can be summarized in one word: fall. One bite and all the tastes of the season come together, giving you exactly what you expect from a pumpkin cookie.

Easy does it, right?

Pumpkin Cookies
adapted from allrecipes makes about 20 cookies

1 1/4 c. flour
1/2 TS baking powder
1/2 TS baking soda
1 TS cinnamon
1/2 TS pumpkin pie spice
pinch salt
1/4 c. butter, softened
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. pumpkin puree
1 egg
1/2 TS vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C.

Combine dry ingredients and set aside.

In a medium bowl, cream butter and sugars. Add pumpkin, egg, vanilla and beat until creamy. Mix in dry ingredients.

Drop onto a cookie sheet by tablespoonfulls (you can try making bigger ones, they'll be softer and just as good).

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, and cool before glazing.

To make glaze: Combine confectioner's sugar, 1 TS cinnamon, a few drops of vanilla extract and enough milk to acheive spreading consistency. (The cinnamon gives the glaze not only a great taste but also a light sparkle)

Monday, November 2, 2009

So sticky I ate them all: Sticky Buns

When I was little, we would spend Thanksgiving break at my grandparents' house in Frederick, Maryland. Their house on Elm Street was just like in American movies--that's the way I explain it to my French friends. There was a large front porch with a swing, chairs and a table for late afternoon lounging. One of the rooms upstairs, the girls room, was roomy and had an old radio sitting on a dresser.

I had a few favorite things in Frederick: the attic, where there was an old Ouija board, the basement with its ping-pong table--home to yearly aunt/uncle/cousin tournaments, and breakfast. Breakfast in the house on Elm St. meant one thing: Grandma's sticky buns. They're pretty much a legend on my father's side of the family; every single one of my cousins has some strange kind of emotional link to them and the slight mention of a sticky bun probably has most of us thinking of breakfasts at Grandma's kitchen table.

You might think I'm a little crazy for feeling so strongly about food (like a warm apple crisp), but believe me, sticky buns are justifiably something to go crazy for. "Another one of those rich American breakfast foods that should be eaten for dessert", some people might say. But no, I assure you, sticky buns are international. I dare you to find a single person without a smile on their face after having one of these. I also dare you to find someone who doesn't ask for seconds. I'll prove it to you: my aunt Mimi--my maman's sister--once went to Frederick, years ago. She still remembers the sticky buns she had there. Take my maman, who loves to indulge but isn't really the breakfast food type--she loves them. I won't keep going, but you get the point. Grandma's sticky buns are the real deal.

After a night in the kitchen...

It's tempting to try to call these cinnamon rolls, but they're not. You can't even see the rolled part, to tell the truth. One look at them on your plate and the first word that comes to mind is gooey. One bite, and all you'll be thinking is gooey...and delicious. Packed with a syrupy, pecan-filled cinnamon flavor, you'll keep coming back for more. Obviously, my version of sticky buns was missing that special something, but I don't mind. They're still completely amazing. Plus, the recipe is nice and simple--just get everything ready the day before, and your sticky buns will be oven-ready, and tastebud-ready, within less than a half hour. And believe me, that's quite a long wait when you know what you're getting into.

Grandma Rose's Sticky Buns
makes around 15

1 package dry yeast
1 cup warm (not hot) water
1/4 cup granualted sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened (I used butter)
1 egg
3 1/2 cups flour

Dissolve yeast in warm water in a large mixing bowl. Stir in sugar, salt and butter and beaten egg, one at a time. Add flour, 1 cup at a time, beating well after 2nd cup. Mark remaining flour in until dough is easy to handle. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight or up to 4 days.

Caramel Nut Mix: Combine 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 2 teaspoons cinnamon. Melt 1/3 cup margarine (again, I used butter).

On floured board, roll dough into a 15x9 inch oblong. Spread with half of melted butter, covering it well, then sprinkle with sugar-cinnamon mixture.

Combine remaining melted margarine with 1/2 cup brown sugar, then spread in bottom of a greased 13x9 inch pan. Sprinkle 1 TB Karo white syrup (I used maple syrup) and 2/3 cup chopped pecans over mixture.

Roll dough up tightly beginning at wide end. Seal ends well. Cut into 1 inch slices and place in prepared pan. Cover and let rise in a warm place for about 1 and 1/2 hours (I left the pan on the kitch table all night long and it worked out fine).

Bake 20-25 minutes at 350°F/180°C. When taken out of oven, let sit for a few moments before turning out onto a rack to cool (or directly onto plates).